Ankara-backed forces destroyed the statue of Kawa the Blacksmith, a central figure in a Kurdish legend, after they captured the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP
There are already signs in Afrin that Turkey is upending the long-established Kurdish demographics of the region by resettling displaced Syrians from across the country in place of Kurds uprooted by Operation Olive Branch.
At the onset of the operation, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at major demographic change when he talked about returning Afrin to what he called “its rightful owners.”
The comment rang alarm bells at the time. Throughout its history, Afrin – an isolated and landlocked enclave of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava) – has had a long-established Kurdish-majority population.
Afrin city fell to Turkey and its Free Syrian Army (FSA) proxy militiamen on March 18 after the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) decided not to engage in a campaign of urban warfare they would have ultimately lost and which would have reduced Afrin’s urban center to heaps of rubble like so many other Syrian cities before it.
Now, less than two months later, Erdogan is making his plans for Afrin a reality.
Displaced Syrians from the Qalamoun region along the Lebanese border and East Ghouta, where the most ferocious regime offensive since East Aleppo in December 2016 displaced over 130,000 people, are being resettled in Afrin by Turkish-FSA forces. The Turkish prime ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) has already established an enormous tent city for the former in Mahmoudiya, which is protected by the Turkish military according to Hurriyet news.
The presence of desperate and displaced Syrians in Afrin is nothing new. Bordering the provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, the Afrin enclave under Kurdish control stood out for its relative stability as a safe haven where Syrians from all backgrounds were offered shelter. Ankara’s incursion into Afrin has destabilized it for the first time and displaced thousands.
Turkish-led forces are handing out vacant houses, abandoned by fleeing Kurds, to displaced Syrian Arabs from East Ghouta. According to a report in Syria Direct, these houses are being provided for free to the incoming displaced persons. With no hope of returning and rebuilding their old lives in East Ghouta for at least a few years, these displaced Syrians are likely being used as pawns by Ankara and the FSA to create new demographic realities on the ground – since many are unlikely to willingly give up free houses only to return to a dangerous and destitute existence.
Nevertheless, not all of those displaced people offered houses are willing to accept them.
“We are displaced from our homes, and are coming as guests to this region,” Khalid al-Hassan, a 29-year-old displaced Arab from East Ghouta, recently told Syria Direct. “We are not accepting these houses for free without the permission of their owners.”
“[A] demographic change is being carried out led by military powers that claimed the protection of the Syrians,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated
in late April, referring to the Turkish-FSA forces.
The Observatory also reported that FSA forces have used spray paint to declare which properties are now theirs. In today’s Afrin a “spray can is enough to turn a building, a farm or even a whole village into [the] private property of a military faction.”
The urgency with which Turkey is apparently trying to transform Afrin into a safe haven for thousands of displaced Syrians is also indicative of a desire to fundamentally alter the region’s demographics.
Since early 2017, after successfully capturing it from Islamic State (ISIS), Turkey has controlled the much larger 60-mile wide Jarablus/Al-Rai/Al-Bab triangle, situated east of Afrin, which they have long promoted as a safe zone for displaced Syrians.
As recently as late March, Ankara announced it had trained another 200 Syrian policemen to help bolster security in the region. Turkish contractors have also been assigned to rebuild large parts of the area since the end of hostilities there over a year ago. In Al-Bab, Turkey has even sponsored the creation of an industrial city, called First Industrial City, which aims to employ thousands of young Syrians in manufacturing jobs.
It would appear this region – with much greater stability, security and a far more homogeneous population than Afrin at the present time – would constitute a more suitable place to resettle displaced Syrians, especially for the long-term or even permanently.
It is yet to be seen whether these current Turkish/FSA efforts will lead to a more direct form of ethnic cleansing, whereby Kurdish civilians still in Afrin are forcibly transferred to other parts of Syria and blocked from returning. Such expulsions would prove difficult for Turkey to plausibly deny when not carried out under the fog of war, as was the case during its battle with the YPG.
If Ankara does ultimately push ahead with such a policy then its prior goal of ensuring no major YPG force had a presence west of the Euphrates will have transformed into a policy of removing Kurds in general from that side of the river.